Never, Always and the Oxford Comma
Of the many discussions that crop up over and over again across the internet, the topic of the serial comma is perhaps my favorite.1 I place it just above the recurring discussion of how to pronounce GIF on my all-time list.
Recently it’s cropped up again in my social feed and even made it onto a tech podcast I heard this weekend.
One of the claims made, on the podcast and in a Medium post by the proprietor of a strange Twitter account with a mission to sign celebrities up for “Team Comma,” is that there is never a situation in which an Oxford Comma doesn’t add clarity. (That is, in comparison to leaving it out. Of course an unclear thought can’t be made a clear thought only by adding a comma.)
Lest I get accused of making a straw man argument, here are some examples.
Rick Mueller, whose @CelebrityOxford Twitter client might possibly be some kind of satire, said this in blog post about this account:
To some, it is optional. I am of the opinion that it should be used at all times. It helps to provide clarity in a list.2
On episode 98 of Accidental Tech Podcast, John Siracusa, Marco Arment and Casey Liss agreed that it is a necessity. John cited the “crazy examples” where the absence of a comma could lead to confusion and Marco equated it to something that would cause a parsing error in a computer program. (The discussion is off-hand, and happens way at the end of the episode, at about the 1:15 mark.)
While I’m neither religiously for nor against the Oxford Comma (more on that in a bit), this claim is simply not true. It’s just as easy to come up with phrases that can be humorously misread because of the comma.
I went to the mall with my father, the Pope, and Ghandi.
Is my father the Pope? How can we tell?
My approach, which is perhaps less interesting than a religious devotion or opposition to a particular style of punctuation, is to have a style and stick to it whenever practical.
For instance, a devotee of the Oxford Comma might leave it off to fit a thought into a 140-character Tweet. On the other hand, a journalist would use it when a sentence would be confusing without it.
I’ve written and edited documents under a variety style manuals (AP, Chicago, various house styles), some of which demanded the serial comma and some of which didn’t. Recently, I’ve mainly worked in AP style, which says to use it when necessary for clarity. In his book Lapsing Into a Comma, Bill Walsh, copy editor for the *, calls this “the ‘toast, juice, and ham and eggs’ rule.”
If you’re not writing in or for the media, you should probably just get in the habit of using it. And, if you don’t want to, or can’t for some reason, you should make sure to add it in where needed for clarity. That won’t stop Rick Mueller’s head from exploding at the inconsistency3, but it will help your readers.
Maybe we can get to a good place on this contentious issue and then we can talk about whether punctuation goes inside or outside of quotations marks.
Also known as Oxford Comma or Harvard Comma; it’s the comma before “and” in a list. ↩
I would argue that “use the serial comma when needed for clarity” is plenty consistent. ↩